THE INSIDER Dispatches From Behind the Scenes of Travel
Trailing the King of Diamonds
By Peter Mandel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 21, 2003; Page P01
A real secret agent is supposed to strap on a gun. The guy I meet -- let's call him the Inspector -- has suit pockets bulging with forms. Instead of a "License to Kill," the undercover man I'm tagging along with has a license to snoop.
The Inspector thinks that "007" refers to a suite in our hotel. His mission: to inspect the heck out of the place and file a no-holds-barred report (plus recommend a diamond rating) that will be relied on by 46 million AAA members.
As long as I don't blow his cover, the Inspector and his handlers at headquarters have agreed to let me shadow him during a typical inspection day. I'm eager to find out how inspectors from the nation's largest rating organization -- there are 65 of these folks -- pull off their mysterious but very well documented work. I want to know what they look for when they scope out fancy four-diamond joints like the Hotel duPont in Wilmington, Del., where the Inspector and I are booked for one night. I want to know how he rates the food and atmosphere and service. And also, a little, what the Inspector's anonymous life is like.
The duPont, the Inspector tells me, is a "solid four diamond, aspiring for five," and the Inspector is tailored for the job. At the front desk, I get dirty looks because of my flannel shirt and L.L. Bean cords. But thanks to his Brooks Brothers three-piece suit and tie, the Inspector seamlessly blends in with the pinstriped executive types who are all around us in line.
Nobody at the desk looks twice at the Inspector, even when he passes the clerk a credit card in a name that -- last time I checked -- was not his own. To hide his identity from hotel managers, the Inspector tells me later, he relies on credit cards with an array of fake names.
A tough-looking, evenly tanned guy in his late forties, the Inspector worked early on as a night manager at a hotel. Since joining AAA, he has inspected D.C., Delaware, Eastern Shore and Annapolis establishments for more than 16 years. On average, he writes up 21 hotel and restaurant inspections a week.
By now, he suspects, some hotels are on to him. If they see him coming, service clicks like clockwork and the element of surprise is lost.
According to the Inspector, some inspectors disguise themselves. "I used to grow a beard every other year. The girl who does Virginia Beach wears wigs. And the guy who worked on Maine would always dye his hair and wear fake glasses."
Since full-time inspectors provide the key data used to compile AAA's regional tour books, and since these guides are updated annually, the Inspector constantly revisits and rechecks the same hotels and eateries on the sly.
Diamond ratings, he explains, are the result of a weighted tally of a hotel's inspection scores in areas that include "management and staff," "housekeeping," "guest services," "room decor and ambiance" and "exterior and grounds." A one-diamond hotel has the basics and appeals to a budget traveler, while five-diamond establishments reflect "the ultimate in luxury and sophistication," according to an AAA brochure. AAA inspectors evaluate a combined total of nearly 50,000 establishments per year, and currently only 82 lodgings have a five-diamond rank.
Especially for the service-intensive four- and five-diamond places, the Inspector sneaks back annually to be sure they haven't slipped a notch or if, by chance, they've made enough improvements to move up. Many hotels and motels don't even meet AAA's basic standards, he says, so they are not awarded a diamond rating at all.
The Inspector says he'd like us to have dinner in the hotel's swanky Green Room before turning in. We'll focus on room inspections tomorrow, he says, when we're fresh and when we can get one of the managers to show us some accommodations besides our own. We turn our attention to the Green Room, which happens to be brown. It looks like a Boston men's club circa 1929. Polished wood paneling, glinting silver and an eerie hush make me think I ought to speak in a whisper and eat with a minimum of clinks and clanks.
While a squadron of waiters drops off thimble-size hors d'oeuvres and flowery sorbets, the Inspector asks me about my experience hours ago, during check-in.
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